January 22, 2008

In light of some of Barack Obama’s religiously-based appeals, there's been some discussion about where the line is, and whether the senator has a reasonable defense to justify more religious rhetoric than Democrats are accustomed to hearing.

How far might Obama take this approach? He’s a committed, church-going Christian. But do his appeals point to a Democrat who might be sympathetic to lowering the church-state wall and backing a policy like Bush’s faith-based initiative (a la Joe Lieberman)?

Apparently not. I was pleased to see the subject come up in an interview Obama did with BeliefNet, which suggested the senator’s view on faith-based programs seems “similar” to George W. Bush’s. Obama responded:

“No, I don’t think so, because I am much more concerned with maintaining the line between church and state. And I believe that, for the most part, we can facilitate the excellent work that’s done by faith-based institutions when it comes to substance abuse treatment or prison ministries.... I think much of this work can be done in a way that doesn’t conflict with church and state. I think George Bush is less concerned about that.

“My general criteria is that if a congregation or a church or synagogue or a mosque or a temple wants to provide social services and use government funds, then they should be able to structure it in a way that all people are able to access those services and that we’re not seeing government dollars used to proselytize.

“That, by the way, is a view based not just on my concern about the state or the apparatus of the state being captured by a particular religious faith, but it’s also because I want the church protected from the state. And I don’t think that we promote the incredible richness of our religious life and our religious institutions when the government starts getting too deeply entangled in their business. That’s part of the reason why you don’t have as rich a set of religious institutions and faith life in Europe. Part of that has to do with the fact that, traditionally, it was an extension of the state. And so there is less experimentation, less vitality, less responsiveness to the yearnings of people. It became a rigid institution that no longer served people’s needs. Religious freedom in this country, I think, is precisely what makes religion so vital.”

That’s a pretty good answer.

The problem with Bush’s faith-based initiative wasn’t that the government would subsidize social-service work from religious groups. The truth is, that’s been going on for years — Catholic Charities, for example, was contracting with the government for taxpayer-financed projects for years, long before Bush came onto the scene.

Rather, the problem with Bush’s approach is that he identified safeguards in the system, and eliminated them. It led to an initiative in which made it easy for religious groups to proselytize with public funds.

Obama’s approach — which I’d like to hear him emphasize a little more often — would seem to return to the model that was in place before Bush took office: faith-based groups are eligible to compete for government contracts, as they have been for years, but only while “maintaining” the separation of church and state, and while preventing ministries from proselytizing while performing a state-sponsored public service.

And in the bigger picture, Obama’s general approach to religious liberty was very much in line with what I wanted to hear. Indeed, he characterized church-state separation in a way that might appeal more to religious conservatives — arguing that the constitutional principle isn’t hostile towards the faithful, but rather, helps maintain the integrity of religious institutions by leaving them free of government interference.

To be sure, I suspect Hillary Clinton and John Edwards would probably answer the same questions in largely the same way. In this sense, it’s encouraging to know that all three Dems will respect the church-state wall that Bush has been hitting with sledgehammer for seven years.

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